I am leading a study on Romans study during our adult Sunday school hour, reading the Paul’s epistle in light of the recent work by scholars Richard Horsley, Neil Elliott, Robert Jewett and others, who situate the work in its Roman imperial context. This Sunday we reviewed Romans 1:1-17, using it to reflect on our contemporary imperial context and the significance of today’s anniversary.
This Wednesday, March 20, is the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Journalists around the nation have been reflecting on the veil that was cast over so many leading up to it, and why more of them didn’t stand up collectively to resist a pre-emptive invasion that went against international law—even as mass protests erupted around the globe. Instead, the major media outlets joined together to tirelessly broadcast the “shock and awe” campaign, enjoying the ratings boost in the name of “liberating” Iraq for “freedom and democracy.” Soon torture was regularly employed, violating the Geneva Conventions under the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” To date, 4,488 Americans and approximately 130,000 Iraqi civilians have died in a war that cost more than three trillion dollars (and is projected to cost us up to six trillion), much of that money going to the defense industry.
The US has long been accused of imperialism and neo-imperialism, but always resisted these accusations as slander. This time, however, the US acted explicitly as an empire, and the American public and news media hardly batted an eye. Why? Struggling with this question is one of the reasons the Roman imperial context has been of such interest to scholars again. How did the “construction of consent” function in a society with such uneven distribution benefitting so few, that included so many conquered peoples, and that embarked on new wars with such regularity? The answer is surprising for Americans because it involves the intersection of religion and politics, which we tend to ignore given our separation between church and state. Once we get the way that politics were theological in Rome, however, we begin to understand how ours are as well. And it also sheds light on how Paul’s theological writing is simultaneously political, opening up new ways of living alternatively in resistance to the larger powers of death and destruction.
The first-century Judean people had a long history of living under foreign imperial powers—the most recent had been Babylon, Persia, and Greece before a brief period of independence under Hasmonean rule. But in 63 B.C.E. the Roman warlord Pompey marched into the Galilean and Judean countryside, annexed the land of Israel, and laid siege to the Temple. The fall of Jerusalem was devastating for the Judeans, and many were deported to Rome as prisoners while others were scattered around the empire. Rome now controlled the entire Mediterranean world. Shortly after, however, a civil war erupted amongst Roman warlords that engulfed the entire empire, creating fears of the end of civilization. Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, emerged victorious in 31 B.C.E., and, in an effort to bring stability amongst the people, the Senate moved quickly to proclaim the “good news” (euangelion) of the new pax Romana. Octavian was lifted up as the “Savior” (soter) who brought “peace” (eirene) and “salvation” (soteria) to the whole world as “Augustus” (“the Revered One”), initiating the “golden age” of Rome. Caesar had been divinized after his death, and so Octavian was called “son of God” (hyios tou theou), and was held forth as the supreme example of justice (dikaiosyne), faithfulness (pistis), and piety (eusebeia). With this, a Roman imperial theology emerged that was spread by Roman elites throughout the empire in an effective media campaign, from poems and inscriptions, to coins and images, to statues, altars, temples and festivals.
We only have to think back to the early 1980s to understand the emotional and religious appeal of the rhetoric at this time. After a turbulent ’70s (foreign policy defeats, oil crisis, Watergate, “stagflation”), the charismatic orator, Ronald Reagan, burst onto the scene appealing to America’s resurgent greatness—“America is back, standing tall,” he emphasized in the 1984 State of the Union. The old myths of America’s “manifest destiny,” a “chosen nation” that is called to be a “city on a hill” for the rest of the world, were reemployed with particular skill to wake American citizens out of their slumber. In his second inaugural address he proclaimed, “We are this last best hope of mankind on Earth…God is the author of our song [and we have been called] to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world,” channeling the earlier sentiments of Andrew Jackson in 1824: “We are a country manifestly called by the Almighty to a destiny that Greece and Rome, in the days of their pride, might have envied… It is our Manifest Destiny to lead and rule all other nations.” This re-affirmation of the heart of American civil religion—our divinely ordained greatness and destiny to rule—were employed to push forward the American values of “peace,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” With this, Reagan became to the US what Octavian Augustus had been to Caesar’s Rome.
In reality, the Roman economy was built on the conquest and enslavement of subject peoples, securing tribute from around the empire that funneled resources to the imperial center, while those on the margins barely survived—a socio-economic breakdown not unlike our own today, with the US using 30% of the earth’s resources with 4% of the population, while the top 1% of the American population end up with 40% of the wealth. In this sort of domestic and global disparity, as Neil Elliott argues in The Arrogance of Nations, there is a constant need to “win the hearts and minds” of conquered peoples (25-30). Rhetoric with theological undertones therefore becomes central, as it appeals to the intuitive and emotional sense of what is most real and eternal. When there is a “crisis of legitimation,” as in the Roman civil war or during the turmoil of the seventies in the US, these core religio-mythical themes are emphasized with particular urgency to unify and secure the consent of the larger public. When that fails, then force is employed. The use of torture or assassination, whether crucifixion in Rome or the “enhanced interrogation techniques” and drone strikes of the US, is used when other means of persuasion has failed. This exposes the true nature of imperial pax—peace through violence.
Paul wrote Romans in the midst of another crisis of legitimation following the assassination of emperor Claudius in 54 C.E., which led to a renewed emphasis on the emperor cult worship to prop up the legitimacy of Nero. As a result, Paul attempts to peel away the many veils for his Roman readers by proclaiming a different vision of reality, calling them to live alternatively in resistance to these larger powers of death and destruction. Rather than Caesar, he writes as a “slave” (doulos) of Christ Jesus… [as one] set apart for the gospel (euangelion) of God” (Rom. 1:1). Instead of Nero, Jesus “was declared to be Son of God (hyiou theo) with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (kyriou), through whom we have received grace and apostleship to secure faithful obedience among the nations (ta ethne)” (1:4-5). Therefore, Paul is “not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation (soterian) to everyone who is faithful (pisteuonti). For in it the justice (dikaiosyne) of God is revealed through faithfulness, for faithfulness; as it is written, ‘The one who is just will live in faithfulness” (1:16-17).
What we encounter in the opening lines of Romans, in other words, is Paul introducing a “war of myths” (Ched Myers), decoding and countering the propaganda of Roman imperial theology with the proclamation of a resurrected Jewish peasant crucified by the empire as true Lord. Caesar’s time is up, thus God’s beloved are called to live into the justice of God through faithfulness, rather than being seduced by, or living in fear of, Rome.
Why did the US get away with pre-emptive invasion of Iraq 10 years ago? Because the Bush administration, most of them a part of the DC think-tank called The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) that aimed to establish the pax Americana across the globe through military might, were successful in renarrating the mythology of Reagan—a contemporary form of imperial theology. Following the tragic events of September 11, when the public was in a state of vulnerability and insecurity, they played to the public’s fears (links to al-Qaeda, presence of WMDs) while proclaiming the religio-political rhetoric of the divine call to spread “liberty” and “democracy” for all. The larger public and media were seduced, while many others lived in fear of resisting. A few got fabulously rich, a president settled a personal grudge, thousands died or were tortured, and the church was largely quiet.
What might it have looked like had God’s beloved in the US, slaves of Christ Jesus, instead loudly proclaimed and lived into the justice of God through the counter “good news” of the pax Christi? This is the question the opening of Paul’s letter poses to us today, calling us to repentance and a new awareness concerning the veils that lure us into continuing passivity and complicity.